Nabokov's interview. (11) The New York Times [1969]



      In April, 1969, Alden Whitman sent me these questions and came to Montreux for a merry interview shortly before my seventieth birthday. His piece appeared in The New York Times, April 19, 1969, with only two or three of my answers retained. The rest are to be used, I suppose, as "Special to The New York Times" at some later date by A. W., if he survives, or by his successor. I transcribe some of our exchanges.

      You have called yourself "an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England. " How does this make you an American writer?

      An American writer means, in the present case, a writer who has been an American citizen for a quarter of a century. It means, moreover, that all my works appear first in America. It also means that America is the only country where I feel mentally and emotionally at home. Rightly or wrongly, I am not one of those perfectionists who by dint of hypercriticizing America find themselves wallowing in the same muddy camp with indigenous rascals and envious foreign observers. My admiration for this adopted country of mine can easily survive the jolts and flaws that:, indeed, are nothing in comparison to the abyss of evil in the history of Russia, not to speak of other, more exotic, countries.

      In the poem "To My Soul, "you wrote, possibly of yourself, as "a provincial naturalist, an eccentric lost in paradise. " This appears to link your interest in butterflies to other aspects of your life, writing, for instance. Do you feel that you are "an eccentric lost in paradise"?

      An eccentric is a person whose mind and senses are excited by things that the average citizen does not even notice. And, per contra, the average eccentric-- for there are many of us, of diffrent waters and magnitudes-- is utterly baffled and bored by the adjacent tourist who boasts of his business connections. In that sense, I often feel lost; but then, other people feel lost in my presence too. And I also know, as a good eccentric should, that the dreary old fellow who has been telling me all about the rise of mortgage interest rates may suddenly turn out to be the greatest living authority on springtails or tumblebugs.

      Dreams of flight or escape recur in many of your poems and stories. Is this a reflection of your own years of wandering?

      Yes, in part. The odd fact, however, is that in my early childhood, long before the tremendously dull peripatetics of Revolution and Civil War set in, I suffered from nightmares full of wanderings and escapes, and desolate station platforms.

      What did you enjoy (and disenjoy) in your Harvard experience? And what induced you to leave Cambridge?

      My Harvard experience consisted of seven blissful years (1941-1948) of entomological research at the wonderful and unforgettable Museum of Comparative Zoology and of one spring term (1952) of lecturing on the European novel to an audieince of some 600 young strangers in Memorial Hall. Apart from that experience, I lectured at Wellesley for half-a-dozen years and then, from 1948, was on the faculty of Corrnell, ending as full professor of Russian Literature and author of American Lolita, after which (in 1959) I decided to devote myself entirely to writing. I greatly enjoyed Cornell.

      In the United States you are probably more widely known for Lolita than for any other single book or poem. If you had your way, what book or poem or story would you like to be known for in the U.S.?

      I am immune to the convulsions of fame; yet, I think that the harmful drudges who define today, in popular dictionaries, the word "nymphet" as "a very young but sexually attractive girl," without any additional comment or reference, should have their knuckles rapped.

      Has the sexual kick in literature reached a peak? Will it not now decline?

      I am completely indifferent to the social aspect of this or any other group activity. Historically, the pornographic record set by the ancients still remains unbroken. Artistically, the dirtier typewriters try to get, the more conventional and corny their products become, e.g. such novels as Miller's Thumb and Tailor's Spasm.

      What is your attitude toward modern violence?


      I abhor the brutality of all brutes, white or black, brown or red. I despise red knaves and pink fools.

      Reflecting on your life, what have been its truly significant moments?

      Every moment, practically. Yesterday's letter from a reader in Russia, the capture of an undescribed butterfly last year, learning to ride a bicycle in 1909.

      How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?

      I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile-- some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

      If you were writing your own obituary, what would you stress or emphasize as your contribution to literature, to the climate of opinion (art and esthetics) of the last 50 years?

      In my case the afterglow of a recent work (say, Ada, finished last Christmas) mingles at once with the hazy aurora of a new task. My next book, dawning as it does in ideal tint and tone, seems for the moment better than anything I wrote before. What I am trying to emphasize is a special thrill of anticipation which by its very nature cannot be treated necrologically.

      What books have you enjoyed lately?

      I seldom experience nowadays the spinal twinge which is the only valid reaction to a new piece of great poetry-- such as, for example, Richard Wilbur's "Complaint," a poem about his marvelous duchess (Phoenix Bookshop edition, 1968).